Faith Even In Death

21 By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff. – Hebrews 11:21 ESV

Jacob, the son of Isaac, had lived a full and far-from-boring life. He and his mother had conspired to deceive Isaac in order to receive the blessing reserved for the firstborn son. Even though he and his brother, Esau, were twins, Jacob had been born second, coming out of the womb while hanging on to his brother’s heel. This is how he got his name, Ya`aqob, which means, “he takes by the heel or he cheats.”

Jacob would live up to his name, living a life in self-imposed exile after having cheated his brother out of his blessing. When Jacob left home, his father, Isaac, reiterated his earlier blessing, stating, “God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples. May he give the blessing of Abraham to you and to your offspring with you, that you may take possession of the land of your sojournings that God gave to Abraham!” (Genesis 28:3-4 ESV).

Even while traveling to the land of Haran where his uncle Laban lived, Jacob had a dream and received a vision and a word from God.

“I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” – Genesis 28:13-15 ESV

God reaffirmed the blessing Jacob had received from Isaac. In spite of the deceit and trickery Jacob and Rebekah utilized to get the blessing, God clearly affirmed it. It had been His plan all along, just as He had told Rebekah before the boys were even born.

“Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.” – Genesis 25:23 ESV

Yet, because of the way he and his mother had chosen to deceive Isaac, Jacob would spend years of his life living in exile in a foreign land far away from his father and mother. During his time in Haran, he continued his pattern of deception and even found himself on the receiving end when his uncle repeatedly deceived him. Part of his uncle’s trickery left Jacob with two wives who each bore him children. Yet, even while in exile, Jacob was blessed by God and grew rich and prosperous. But in time, he became homesick and decided to return to Canaan and face his brother’s anger.

On his way, he had a divine encounter with God. It took the form of a literal wrestling match when God appeared in human form and confronted His wayward servant. During this epic struggle, Jacob demanded that his opponent bless him, but rather than a blessing, Jacob received a new name.

Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” – Genesis 32:28 ESV

This scene aptly sums up Jacob’s entire life because, ever since his birth, he had spent his entire life wrestling with God. Rather than trust God with the outcome of his life, Jacob repeatedly tried to do things his way. He desperately wanted his will to be done and was willing to use deceit and trickery to make it happen. Even in his physical struggle with the Almighty, it appears that he won the match because it states that God [the man], “did not prevail against Jacob” (Genesis 32:25 ESV).

But did Jacob really best God? Did he somehow manage to defeat the God of the universe? The text states that Jacob’s wrestling match with God left him with a dislocated hip joint. His struggle was not without pain and consequences. And his newly disabled hip would be accompanied by a new name. God declared that Jacob, who would now be called Israel, had “striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”

This was not a concession of defeat on God’s part. He was simply stating that Jacob had yet again managed to survive. The Hebrew word for “prevailed” is yakol and it means “to be able, be able to gain or accomplish, be able to endure, be able to reach.” Jacob had endured his exile. He had survived his own life of deceit. He had even managed to go toe-to-toe with God and live to tell about it. And despite all his deceit and self-empowered efforts to do things his way, he was going to gain all that God had promised. And he was going to learn the painful lesson that every blessing in his life had been God’s doing, not his own.

Jacob would eventually make it safely back to the land of Canaan, receive a surprisingly warm welcome from his brother, Esau, and have yet another visit from God.

God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Paddan-aram, and blessed him. And God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” So he called his name Israel. And God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body. The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.” – Genesis 35:9-12 ESV

Jacob would father twelve sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher. Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son and his favoritism would eventually cause his other sons to sell Joseph into slavery. Joseph would end up in Egypt where, through an amazing chain of God-ordained events, he would become the second most powerful ruler in the land. In the meantime, Jacob and his remaining sons would find themselves dealing with a terrible famine in the land of Canaan, which would eventually force them to seek out aid in the land of Egypt. This would lead to a surprising reunion with Joseph, who would end up not only forgiving his brothers but providing them with protection and land.

Thus Israel [Jacob] settled in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen. And they gained possessions in it, and were fruitful and multiplied greatly. And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years. So the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were 147 years. – Genesis 47:27-28 ESV

When the time came for Jacob to die, he asked Joseph to bring in his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, so that he might bless them. In an interesting turn of events, Joseph presented his two sons to Jacob so that the eldest, Manasseh, might receive the blessing of the firstborn. He held Manasseh in his left hand so that Jacob could easily bless him with his right hand. He held Ephraim in his right hand so that he would receive the blessing of the second-born from Jacob’s left hand.

The Scriptures tell us “Then Joseph removed them from his knees, and he bowed himself with his face to the earth” (Genesis 48:12 ESV). With his head bowed, he did not see his father, Jacob, switch his hands and place his right hand on the head of Ephraim, the younger of the two. The passage makes it clear that Jacob’s eyesight was dim from old age and he could not see well. With his hands crossed, Jacob pronounced his blessing.

“The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day, the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the boys; and in them let my name be carried on, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.” – Genesis 48:15-16 ESV

When Joseph saw what had been done, he tried to get his father to correct his apparent mistake. But Jacob refused, saying, “I know, my son, I know. He [Manasseh] also shall become a people, and he also shall be great. Nevertheless, his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall become a multitude of nations” (Genesis 48:19 ESV).

You might think that Jacob, because of his poor eyesight, inadvertently and mistakenly gave the blessing of the firstborn to the wrong son. But the mention of Jacob’s poor eyesight is there to indicate that he had to trust God for what he was doing. He had received a divine directive from God to give Ephraim the blessing reserved for the firstborn. Joseph was attempting to ensure that Manasseh received the blessing of the firstborn, but the nearly blind Jacob knew that it was God’s will for Ephraim to receive the blessing. So what Jacob did, he did by faith. He had to trust God with the outcome. He did not fully understand it or know how it would all turn out, but he knew that God was in control. He didn’t need strong eyesight, he simply needed strong faith.

Jacob would die in the land of Egypt, never returning to the land of Canaan, but he trusted that God would bring his people back to the land and fulfill His promise to make them prosperous and to bless them. Jacob blessed his two grandsons, “bowing in worship over the head of his staff” (Hebrews 11:21 ESV). His hope was in God. His assurance was in the promises of God. He had a strong conviction that God knew what He was doing and he willingly obeyed God’s wishes. Jacob might not have always lived his life by faith, but he ended it that way – trusting God for the fate of his family and the future fulfillment of His promises.

Jacob had learned the reality of the statement that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV). His eyes were dim but his hope for the future was bright and clear.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Israel: God Fights.

Now the famine was severe in the land. And when they had eaten the grain that they had brought from Egypt, their father said to them, “Go again, buy us a little food.” But Judah said to him, “The man solemnly warned us, saying, ‘You shall not see my face unless your brother is with you.’ If you will send our brother with us, we will go down and buy you food. But if you will not send him, we will not go down, for the man said to us, ‘You shall not see my face, unless your brother is with you.’” Israel said, “Why did you treat me so badly as to tell the man that you had another brother?” They replied, “The man questioned us carefully about ourselves and our kindred, saying, ‘Is your father still alive? Do you have another brother?’ What we told him was in answer to these questions. Could we in any way know that he would say, ‘Bring your brother down’?” And Judah said to Israel his father, “Send the boy with me, and we will arise and go, that we may live and not die, both we and you and also our little ones. I will be a pledge of his safety. From my hand you shall require him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever. If we had not delayed, we would now have returned twice.” – Genesis 43:1-10 ESV

Two names become more prominent in this section of the story. First of all, Jacob is mentioned by name in verse three, but then just three verses later he is referred to as “Israel.” This is the name God gave Jacob after their wresting match at the Jabbok River.

“Your name will no longer be Jacob. From now on you will be called Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have won.” – Genesis 32:28 NLT

The name, Israel, means “God fights” and was an apt name for the man who wrestled with God until he received a blessing from God. Jacob walked away or, better yet, limped away, from that encounter with God with a damaged hip – a painful reminder of his confrontation with the Almighty.

Jacob named the place Peniel (which means “face of God”), for he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been spared.” – Genesis 32:30 NLT

Jacob would become the father of the Israelites. And this story is all about God’s sovereign plan for the nation of Israel, not just the immediate family of Jacob. There is far more going on in this narrative than the story of one son of a single man and their restoration as a family. It is about the word of God to Abraham and His promise to give him more descendants than there are grains of sand on the seashore or stars in the heavens. But not only that, God would raise up a descendant who would be a blessing to all the nations. Paul refers to this very promise in his letter to the Galatian believers, providing them with a Spirit-inspired interpretation of God’s meaning.

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. – Galatians 3:16 ESV

That is where the second name in this portion of the narrative comes in. Up until this point in the story, the two oldest brothers, Reuben and Simeon, have played the most significant roles. It was Reuben who had tried to prevent his brothers from killing Joseph and suggested they throw him in a pit and let him die. But in reality, he was planning to come back later and rescue Joseph. It would be Simeon, the second-oldest who would be chosen by Joseph to remain as his hostage while the brothers returned home to fetch Benjamin. But now, the name of Judah comes to the forefront. This is significant because it will be through the tribe of Judah that the Messiah will come. In the genealogy of Jesus, recorded in Matthew 1, the name of Judah take a prominent place because of the part he played in God’s plan for Jesus’ birth and incarnation.

Abraham was the father of Isaac.
Isaac was the father of Jacob.
Jacob was the father of Judah and his brothers. – Matthew 1:2 NLT

It would be Judah who finally convinced their father to allow them to take Benjamin back with them to Egypt.

Judah said to his father, “Send the boy with me, and we will be on our way. Otherwise we will all die of starvation — and not only we, but you and our little ones. I personally guarantee his safety. You may hold me responsible if I don’t bring him back to you. Then let me bear the blame forever.” – Genesis 43:8-9 NLT

Why is all this so important? It is a turning point in the story. Whether he realizes it or not, Jacob (Israel) is wrestling with God again. Just as he had at the Jabbok River, Jacob is fearing the future. He is doubting God’s sovereignty and questioning His word. The famine and the threat of losing yet another son have clouded his thinking and caused him to fear. So in the middle of this portion of the narrative, Moses, the author, suddenly refers to Jacob as Israel – God fights. God was not going to let Jacob get away with remaining in Canaan. The unrelenting famine was taking its toll. The return to Egypt was inevitable and unavoidable. God had promised years ago to be with Jacob wherever he went.

“Your descendants will be as numerous as the dust of the earth! They will spread out in all directions—to the west and the east, to the north and the south. And all the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your descendants. What’s more, I am with you, and I will protect you wherever you go. One day I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have finished giving you everything I have promised you.” – Genesis 28:14-15 NLT

God had promised to give Jacob descendants, not take them away. From Jacob’s limited perspective, all he could see was the loss of Joseph and Simeon and the threat of losing Benjamin. Leaving Canaan and moving to Egypt made no sense in his mind. It would be heading in the wrong direction – away from the very land God had promised to give him. But all of this was part of God’s plan. The loss of Joseph, the famine, the arrest of Simeon, the threat of losing Benjamin, the rising prominence of Judah, the availability of grain in Egypt – all of this was divinely ordained. While Jacob was willing to settle for buying a little food from Egypt to extend their lives a bit longer, God was wanting to bless them beyond their wildest dreams. While Jacob was willing to eke out an existence in the land of Canaan, God was bringing about His divine plan for the salvation of mankind. As men, we are notoriously short-sighted and temporally-focused. God is eternal in nature and always focused on the final fulfillment of His promises. Paul would have us constantly remember to keep our eyes on the future, trusting God for what He has promised.

For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. – 2 Corinthians 4:17-18 ESV

Genesis 31-32, Matthew 16

Wrestling With God.

Genesis 31-32, Matthew 16

So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel,saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.”  – Genesis 32:30 ESV

This is such a fascinating story, filled with equal parts of faith and faithlessness. Throughout the events that occur, we see the faithful hand of God working behind the scenes, orchestrating the path of Jacob, and fulfilling His promises to Abraham. We also see Jacob struggle with taking God at His Word and attempting to take matters into his own hands – just in case God doesn’t come through. Jacob acknowledges God’s sovereign control over his life, having prospered and protected him all during his time in Paddan-Aram, but he also fears for his life, anticipating a less-than-cheery welcome from his brother Esau. We see the continuing conflict between Jacob and Laban, his uncle. But the real conflict of Jacob’s life had always been between he and God.

What does this passage reveal about God?

The obvious lesson is regarding His sovereignty. God is always in control – in all situations – regardless of how they might appear to us at the time. While Jacob’s flight to Paddan-Aram was his mother’s idea, and one she had to come up with to protect Jacob from the revenge of Esau, God would use this “detour” to accomplish his will for Jacob’s life. Even Jacob recognized the hand of God on his life during his time with Laban. He told his wives, “You know that I have served your father with all my strength, yet your father has cheated me and changed my wages ten times. But God did not permit him to harm me” (Genesis 31:6-7 ESV). God miraculously prospered Jacob, in spite of Laban’s ongoing attempts to cheat him out of what was rightfully his. Upon receiving news that his brother Esau was on his way with 400 armed men, Jacob prayed , “I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children” (Genesis 32:10-11 ESV). Jacob feared. He lacked faith. And yet, His God had been proved Himself faithful every step of the way. Jacob was having to learn that Laban was not his problem. He was going to have to understand that Esau was not the one he needed to be worrying about. It was God. His real issue was with God, not man. He was going to learn that, while he could trick and deceive men, God was another matter. And while he could strive and work for the things of this world, what he really needed was the blessing of God. And it’s interesting to note that as Jacob lined up all his possessions and prepared to hand them over to his brother as a peace offering, the one thing he demanded from the angel with whom he wrestled was a blessing. “Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day has broken.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me’” (Genesis 32:26 ESV). And Jacob received his blessing because he “prevailed.” This does not mean he beat God. It means that he wrestled with God until he received that for which he was striving. So God told him, ““Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28 ESV). His new name was a combination of the Hebrew words for “wrestle” and “God.” Jacob had clung to God, demanding He fulfill His covenant promise to him. He knew that his future was in danger without God’s help. And God would prove Himself faithful yet again, delivering Jacob from his brother Esau and providing him a place back in the land of promise.

What does this passage reveal about man?

Jacob’s entire life had been a wrestling match with God. At every phase of his life, Jacob had been given full notice that the covenant promises of God would be his. At Jacob’s birth, God had confirmed to Rebekah that, while Esau was technically the first-born son and heir to the inheritance, “the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23 ESV). Jacob had cheated his brother out of his birthright. He had tricked his father into giving him the blessing reserved for the firstborn. And yet, he still doubted that God was going to bless him. He lived in fear of Esau’s eventual retaliation. He had to constantly battle his own uncle just to make a living. He had watched his two wives bicker and fight, even bartering over their rights to have sexual relations with him. His life was a complicated mess filled with constant conflicts. And yet his real problem was with God. He was delaying the inevitable. At some point he was going to have to go to the mat with God and have it out over whether or not he was going to trust Him. And that is exactly what happened. That fateful night in the land of Seir, after having sent all that he owned and loved ahead of him, the Scriptures tell us, “And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day” (Genesis 32:24 ESV). All he held dear, his wives, children, and all his worldly possessions had been sent ahead as payment to his brother Esau. He was faced with the possible loss of everything, including his life – all that he had worked so hard for all those years. And he was left alone – with God. And they did battle. And Jacob, weary and worn out from the exertion of it all, clinged for dear life, demanding that “the man” bless him. Everything else was meaningless and worthless, but the blessing of God was essential. This would be a turning point in Jacob’s life, resulting in a name change, but also a significant change in outlook. Jacob had been a man of the flesh, prone to do things his own way. Israel would become a man of faith, a spiritual man who was learning to trust in and lean on His God for everything.

How would I apply what I’ve read to my own life?

Over in the gospel of Matthew, we have that powerful rebuke that Jesus gives Peter. Jesus has just told the disciples that He is going to have to go to Jerusalem and “suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21 ESV). Peter responds quickly and adamantly, telling Jesus that this is NOT going to happen. In essence, Peter is telling the Son of God that the will of God is wrong. And Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:23 ESV). Oh, how easy it is to become a hindrance to God. That does not mean we can keep God from doing what He intends to do, but we can place ourselves in opposition to His divine will. That is not a place we want to be. That was not the place Jacob needed to be. He was going to have to learn to trust God and take Him at His word. He was going to have to learn to see God’s hand at work in his life and trust that what He had done in the past could also be done in the future. That night in his wrestling match with God, Jacob had learned the truth of Jesus’ statement found in Matthew 16:26: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” Jacob had become wealthy. He had been blessed materially. But all of that meant little or nothing without the blessing of God in his life. What set Jacob apart was not his net worth or personal portfolio, but his relationship with God Almighty. His uniqueness was based solely on God’s divine determination to fulfill His covenant promises to him and through him. And the same is true for me today.

Father, I can see Your hands all over and around my life. I can look back and see Your activity all around me. But then I can look ahead and worry and fret over what I am going to do about future events or circumstances. I try to take matters into my own hands. I scheme and plan. I worry and stress out over what is going to happen. But what I really need to do is wrestle with You. I need to do business with You and strive with You to the point that I walk away wounded, but confident that You will do what You promise to do. You are faithful. I have nothing to fear. Amen.

Ken Miller
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men